Sara gave me a book that she had to read for class called “Simpler Living, Compassionate Life”. I’m just starting it, but I was struck by something I read in the introduction. One of the contributors was writing about how he had spent some time watching cable TV in order to write about the dominant message he found. What he realized is that our culture inundates us with the notion the of self-centeredness that each of us is the center of the universe. I think I would agree that I’ve seen this as a dominant narrative. Especially in advertising, I’m constantly subjected to this message that I am the most important person. But it isn’t only in a positive way, e.g. just saying that I’m important or worthwhile, it’s also in negative ways. Think of ads where you’re made to feel self-conscious about your breath, or your B.O., or about your body in some other way. Self-consciousness is still self-centeredness. He went on to contrast what he saw as a dominant narrative of Christian faith (and many other religions) which is one of selflessness. Of losing yourself in order to find yourself. I think of Jesus saying “Those who lose their lives, will save them.”
I think there is a lot of wisdom in that, but I was feeling somewhat unsettled by the idea. Part of it comes from the Seminary, where there is a big emphasis on “self-care”. In caring professions, there is a tendency for people to embrace that idea of selflessness in an unhealthy way. They end up treating themselves pretty badly, and sacrificing their own needs for the sake of others. The idea of self-care is really just giving people permission to take care of themselves as well. I had never thought of it much beyond agreeing that it was a good idea, but after reading that passage, I began to think of it in a different way. Before I had thought of self-care as a kind of concession to that self-centeredness that we’ve all been raised in, that it’s a tightrope balancing act between caring for others while still caring for your needs as well. People talk about it using a metaphor of keeping batteries charged, or refueling your gas tank.
The only problem with that idea is that it doesn’t really let you embrace this idea of selflessness. We’re still self-centered but simply adapting to a selfless lifestyle. Like we’re astronauts wearing space suits exploring some alien landscape, we have to keep heading back to the shuttle to refill our air tanks. But I realized that you can think of self-care in a different way. If I begin with the assumption that I will have care and compassion for everyone and not be self-centered that means I can’t treat myself badly either. So I can, in each moment, look at my own actions and say “is this what’s best for this person?”.
As an example, imagine you have an overweight friend who your really care about. And for one day, you can see everything they do and decide what they should do with their day. You see your friend come home after work and plop down on the couch and turn on the TV, just like they do every day. If you could decide for them, is this what you’d choose? Maybe they could spend that free time going for a walk, or even just getting up and doing some chores around the house. Maybe you’d want your friend to spend the evening making a delicious and healthy meal instead of being a couch potato and microwaving some junk food. What would you choose for someone you really care about?
But here is the really strange thing. You have that power. There is a person in your life you really care about, and you have the power to control every action they take, that person is you. So self-care doesn’t need to be selfish, it’s really about having care and compassion for yourself. Choosing what’s best for this person you care about. Maybe it isn’t being a couch potato that’s the problem, maybe it’s working too much. If you had a friend who was constantly sacrificing their own needs and working too much, what choice would you make for them? Most of us would choose to give them rest, maybe volunteer to help them or find someone else to even out the load.
One think I have noticed in myself at times that I’ve been really organized is that it feels like there are fewer barriers to doing things. When my life is in chaos, it seems really hard to do even simple things like tidying up my room, or making something nice for dinner. I think we put psychological barriers up around simple tasks sometimes and they feel overwhelming. But, when I think of it this way, as choosing what’s best for someone I care about, it seems like a lot of those barriers disappear. If I were making choices for a friend, I don’t have to take on their feelings of insecurity, their fear of failure, or all the other million invisible impediments our minds create. If I’m really choosing what’s best for myself. If I’m living selflessly without living ascetically, I can ignore some of those things in my own mind, and choose what’s best.